Government ministers need proper training, say MPs

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Ministers need training and mentoring to raise the overall performance of government, according to two former frontbenchers from opposing sides of the House of Commons.

A “sneering” attitude towards change needs to be challenged with the introduction of major reforms that would also allow experts from outside parliament to serve as ministers, the MPs Nick Herbert and John Healey have told the Guardian in a joint interview. By convention, ministers have to sit in the House of Commons or the House of Lords, but there is no technical bar to recruitment from outside parliament because ministers are appointed by the Queen.

In a message to the political and bureaucratic traditionalists, who are often highly resistant to reforms, Herbert called for Westminster to embrace standard business management practice.

“Part of the problem with our Westminster culture is that it laughs at things that are commonplace in the outside world and in professional organisations, whether they are NGOs [non-governmental organisations] or commercial organisations,” he said. “We have got to stop sneering at these ideas and say it is important that we make sure ministers are properly supported in their roles.”

The Herbert-Healey proposals, which have been encouraged by the Tory and Labour leaderships, will be launched on Wednesday at a Westminster conference of their new cross-party thinktank, GovernUp. In a sign of the bipartisan support for change in Whitehall, the conference is to be addressed by Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister who has spearheaded a series of Whitehall reforms over the last five years, and by Lucy Powell, the shadow cabinet office minister who is playing a key role in Labour’s general election campaign.

In their most dramatic proposals, Herbert and Healey call for outsiders to be appointed as ministers and for politicians to be offered training both before they take office and once they are in post.

“Ministers should have access to better support, mentoring and training,” said Herbert, the former Conservative policing minister. “That is something ministers are probably reluctant to ask for when in office. But it is quite possible that individual ministers would need skills supporting in certain areas. A modern organisation would give that to people and yet we don’t really give that to ministers in government.”

The proposal would build on induction courses that were run for Tory shadow ministers before the 2010 general election by the non-party Institute for Government.

Healey, the former Labour housing minister, denied that they were proposing to introduce apprentice ministers.

“We are not talking about [that],” the former Labour housing minister said. “We are talking about ministers who must be as good as they possibly can be in their job and require more than they get at the moment to do that.”

Herbert said ministers could be appointed without being members of the Commons or Lords. “There isn’t a constitutional reason why some ministers shouldn’t be appointed from outside parliament provided they are properly accountable to parliament.” Such ministers would answer to MPs through regular appearances before parliamentary select committees.

In their joint paper, Herbert and Healey also propose:

  • The creation of an Office of Budget Management to improve the monitoring of government spending by combining the Treasury’s “core spending functions” with the Cabinet Office’s efficiency and reform unit. Maude is on course to save £20bn this year – the equivalent of a quarter of the budget deficit – through efficiencies and crackdowns on fraud, error and debt. Herbert and Healey believe the Treasury is strong at setting budgets and punishing departments that run over budget. But they believe the monitoring of spending is poor.

Healey said: “At the moment the Treasury has an interest in whether departments keep within their spending controls and no interest in how well they spend that money. That has consistently been a weakness in the British system. In this period of intense fiscal pressure that is not good enough for the future.”

  • Reversing restrictions on local government spending championed by Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, who has introduced a law which requires a referendum to be held if councils want to increase council tax by more than 2%.

The two politicians were strongly supportive of Maude, who has been involved in long-running battles with senior civil servants over his plans to give ministers a greater say over the appointment of Whitehall permanent secretaries and to allow ministers to recruit outsiders.

Healey said: “The great strength of Francis Maude is, first, he has been there for five years and, secondly, he has spent every day of the five years relentlessly pursuing the reforms he thinks are needed. We may differ at the margins with some of the details of those but with government you must have a senior minister – and really the prime minister – with their shoulder behind the changes that need to be made.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 10th February 2015 15.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010